Why I don’t do competitions (any more).

~ New York Society of Illustrators Awards, 2008 (two prizes) ~

I’m at the tail end — seeing the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ — of making a brand new website, starting totally from scratch and focussing on all the things that are currently missing from the current one.

I’ve been meaning to do it for a couple of years, and much as I adore social media for sharing and enjoying each other’s work, there’s nothing like an online Mothership for telling the world who you are and what you like to make; a central place where I can put everything that’s ‘me’.

In the course of doing this, I chose to re-visit my FAQ section and where necessary (which as it turns out was 100% of all of it) write my thoughts afresh. After all, the types of questions I get asked have changed in nature, and now mostly come increasingly via Instagram messages and Twitter messages rather than via email, as they used to.

FAQs feel a little ‘noughties’, but they remain useful: it’s still the case that most of the things I get asked are similar in nature and are thus given a similar answer. Though I’ll endeavour to answer EVERY query I receive, as soon as I can, there’s still an argument for having a ‘first line of defence’ which provides the answers to the most commonly-asked questions, so that the enquirer can check there first and if necessary, compose a more granular question to fire my way.

One of the answers that remained pretty much the same was this one. I expand on it here as it’s something I’ve been meaning to elaborate on for a while. This is that ‘elaborated’ version.

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Q: I don’t see any awards or gongs on your website, why’s that?

A: I do have some, but they’re not on the site. I honestly don’t think they’re that important, or would influence whether a client thinks I’m suitable for a job. A client will look at the style of my work, the colours, maybe the medium; they’ll look at my profile in terms of whether I’ve created work of this nature before, and if I haven’t, they’ll ask whether the work on show suggests I could take a run at the project they have in mind. Finally, we’ll talk, and they’ll assess my availability, process and timescales, and finally-finally decide whether I should do the job (or, it might be me that makes that decision).

Never in my working life of 27 years have I been asked by a client, or any of my agents, whether I’ve won competitions, or whether I have prizes or awards. Yes, there’s a lot more to committing to a creative vocation, as it can be more than ‘just’ your profession, job or trade, and a client or agent asking this question is not the only set of circumstances in which competitions might be relevant to that vocation. In an educational setting, for example, doing well in awards might be part of a wider landscape of professional achievements being sought out, alongside qualifications and experience, especially where an institution has a policy of putting students into competitive settings.

But I don’t feel they’ve ever played a part in my myriad clients’ decisions to hire me for jobs, nor do I feel they should.

Of course, I’m not saying NO-ONE should enter competitions, or that they shouldn’t exist. Not at all; that’s up to the individual. But I know that from the very beginning — starting in the second year of university — the pressure was on to compete: with each other, and with total strangers, by entering competitions, and with ourselves. The latter I had no problem with — putting pressure and high expectations on myself is something I’ve carried about in my ‘holster of burdens’ all my life — but the first two, competing with my peers, friends and colleagues or people I’d never met — always felt a little off, and distracted from the main focus of being in the educational environment: to experiment, play, evolve, develop, and learn.

That’s not to say our course wasn’t abso-fucking-lutely hardcore. It was. 9–5, 5 days a week, with stuff to get done at weekends and every single holiday; 26 fully completed, handed-in projects in the first 11-week term alone; crits every week and a ball-breaking amount of written work to go alongside it all. The pressure from that was enough, without a tutor arriving with a pile of photocopied competition briefs ready to add their name to the winner’s certificate as ‘supervising member of staff’.

The weird thing is I had a love-hate relationship with competitions. I hated the pressure, and my friend and I would quite literally break into a run in the opposite direction from a tutor striding down the corridor with what was so obviously going to be another competiton for us to enter. But I also loved the challenge. I hated pitching myself against my colleagues, but I loved the thrill of everyone disappearing to their rooms every night and scheming on a solution, knowing we were all doing it at the same time and to the same deadline: what would Simon’s work be like? How would Mel answer this one? Is Michelle going to go for gouache, or try something else?

And I won things. I entered competitions and I won them, or got runner up places, or some other kind of recognition because of them. And obviously, I loved that, too.

But alongside those positive feelings was the uneasy awareness of an inflated sense of security, the success feeding the erroneous notion that I might have ‘made it’, before I’d barely begun. In fact, the ‘success’ I was having generally on the course and via competitions caused me to have the closest thing I think I’ve ever had to a little breakdown, coming home one Christmas and declaring that I was spent, all my ideas were gone, I’d done all my best work and how on earth was I going to be able to carry on from here?

It was silly of course and, as my Mum very quickly realised, I was just exhausted and a bit emotional at being home. TV, sleep, tinsel and good food quickly sorted out my terrible twenties angst.

But competitions entered later on, as a working professional, continued to make me anxious with a big dose of self-doubt if I didn’t get anywhere, and when I did do well, I could feel the outcome giving me that same inflated sense of security and maybe a little internal gung-ho. Perhaps, I thought, success in competitions meant I didn’t need to try so hard, all the time, because a group of people I’ve never met have decided my work ticks a set of boxes, or it’s been passed in front of the subjective opinions of five different people. And if I entered and got nowhere: the opposite: maybe I’m a fraud. Why am I even trying. Why do I bother. Am I actually a failure and everyone else can see this but me.

Note those were statements, not questions: all those evil, niggling little dialogues spoke up because I’d thrown my work into an unknown vat of work by a hundred or thousand other people, which didn’t scratch the particular itch of whatever the judges were feeling on the day.

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I continued to enter competitions, but over time I started to become totally ambivalent about them. Those tended to be ones I’d paid to enter — and that scenario made me uncomfortable, too. WHY was I ambivalent? If I didn’t care about the outcome, why was I bothering to enter? I realised it was out of a sense of duty, and very much born from the notion that ‘that’s what professional illustrators do’. And we don’t, not all of us, just some of us. Competition gongs are robustly not a signpost that you’re a working, professional, busy illustrator: they’re just a sign you like entering competitions.

Coupling all those realisations with the fact that I was paying hard-earned cash to enter, knowing that in some cases thousands of people would be paying the not-terribly-modest entry fees (sometimes with winners paying additional fees to display work on top), and my decision came into focus: just don’t bother. The time I would spend choosing work, formatting and uploading it and filling forms online could very much be spent doing something more productive — something with a definite, guaranteed positive outcome, like a piece of work, or doing some admin, or cooking something tasty, or reading the book I’d allowed to get dusty through repeated late nights working, even if just for the hour it took to enter that comp. (And where were all the fees going?)

Even during my many fun hours spent being a competition judge, I would struggle to reach a decision and, channelling my early-career experiences as a lecturer, I wanted to write to every single entrant and tell them something positive about their work, along with a suggestion or two on how they might improve. But I had to pick a first, a second, a third. I loved the process of looking at all the wonderful work, and I’d do it again, but I felt mindful of all the entrants’ reactions whether I were to award them or not. So I finally made the decision to stop entering competitions myself a few years ago. If I was happy with a piece of work, and my client was happy with it, then it ended there.

And that was that.

Some people love entering competitions every year, but not me. I get the round-robin emails of this competition opening and that deadline looming, and I don’t feel tempted to yield. Years after deciding to ease back from them, I have chilled a little, and instead of a blanket ban have narrowed it down to one illustration competition I’m happy to enter now, which is the V&A Illustration Awards, run by one the UK’s oldest institutions. I don’t make myself enter every year, my policy being only to enter something when I feel it would sit well in the setting of the organisation, and alongside company that that competition attracts. The process of surveying a year’s work and identifying something to fit the brief is a useful and contemplative exercise, whether I win anything or not, and allows me an opportunity to ponder my trajectory, the historical world of illustration, and my place within it now, and in future.

And of course, despite my decision-making, I totally reserve the right to enter anything I feel like, at a moment’s notice — but only after I’ve run the full-body diagnostic of ‘why’ — what’s compelling me to enter, and can those needs be met by an alternative course of action? I check myself for signs that I might be being tempted by the dangled carrot of an ego boost, or a need for some professional reassurance, and think about what it is I’m really after.

Nice as competitions can feel, making a living as a freelance illustrator is competitive enough. It took me a while to realise I don’t need a list of prizes to tell the world how much I’ve invested in the profession I love, and how much of my soul is already, in fact, shaped like a little yellow pencil.

A very, very old home-made website page! Back when I was a super-keen Dreamweaver.

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